Pay It Down: From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day

Pay It Down: From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day

by Jean Chatzky


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Jean Chatzky has been working with viewers of NBC's Today show for a yearlong series on how to get out of debt once and for all. Her method, both on TV and in this book, is simple yet powerful: the key is saving just $10 a day that you currently waste. It doesn't sound like much—a movie ticket or lunch for two at McDonald's— but $10 really can take you from debt to wealth in just a few years. And because it doesn't feel like an impossible goal, people are more likely to stick with Chatzky's plan than an extreme regimen of spending cutbacks.

Chatzky is focusing on debt because it's the single biggest threat to our financial health. The average American family has sixteen credit cards and high-rate debt of more than $8000, not even counting car loans and mortgages. They pay more than $1000 a year in interest alone. Debt makes people feel depressed and overwhelmed, leaving them without enough money for the truly important things in life—education, retirement, owning a home, feeling secure.

Chatzky, one of America's most popular personal finance experts, writes in down- to- earth, woman-next-door language about how to get started right away, without giving up the things that truly give you pleasure. She offers practical, accessible strategies to help readers find the money to pay off their bills, lower their interest rates, and improve their credit scores. Featuring real-life examples of people featured on her Today show series, Pay It Down can transform debtors into future millionaires.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781591840633
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/02/2004
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.36(h) x 0.87(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Jean Chatzky is the financial editor for NBC's Today show, has a monthly column in Money magazine, and is a featured columnist for USA Weekend and Time. Her books include You Don't Have to Be Rich.

Read an Excerpt

Getting Ahead and Staying Ahead

52 million times a day.
2.2 million times an hour.
36,242 times a minute.
604 times a second.

That's how often we use our credit cards in this country. That's how often we whip out our slim pieces of plastic, slide them through the little electronic slots or hand them over to the cashier. We type the numbers into our browsers or read them hurriedly to a clerk over the telephone to buy books, or groceries, or movie tickets, or even to foot the bill for the co-payment at the pediatrician's office. We do it so often, we don't even think about it anymore.

But we should. Because on average, each of those transactions costs us $82. That may not sound like much—dinner for four at the local Italian joint; a sweater and a pair of jeans at the Gap; a rehab for the broken vacuum cleaner—but when we start to add up all of those $82 charges, the number quickly becomes meaningful. And when we lump them with the money we owe on our mortgages, our car loans, our home equity loans, and our student loans, the numbers start to get very large very quickly. In fact, they get downright scary. The fact is, consumer debt, as measured by the Federal Reserve, is at an all-time high. Members of the average household in America owe more than $8,000 on the 16 (16!) pieces of plastic they carry in their wallets. We have less equity in our homes than at any time in the past. We have less equity in our cars than at any time in the past. That's why it's not so surprising that the number of cars repossessed and homes foreclosed on has skyrocketed in recent years. Ditto the number of people filing for bankruptcy.

The fact is, Americans are addicted to debt.

Is Debt Getting in the Way of Your Future?

If you have too much debt—particularly credit card debt—I can guarantee that you don't have much of a financial future. Why? Think about what happens when you have credit card bills looming large. You feel like you have to pay those bills first—and so you do. If you don't, the creditors start to call.

Because those bills are so large (even the minimums look maximum), there's nothing left over to save or invest. So when an emergency hits—whether it's an unreimbursed medical bill or a new transmission—you pay for it with plastic. Then the minimums go even higher, and the cycle continues.

There are millions and millions of Americans in your shoes, and, unfortunately, for many, many people it's about to get worse. Years of the lowest interest rates in history have made it possible for you to borrow more for less: you could take out bigger mortgages, larger car loans, tack on home equity lines and keep your monthly payments fairly steady. But interest rates aren't headed down. They aren't even likely to remain fixed for very long. As our improving economy gains traction, they'll be heading up, which means that your adjustable-rate loans—your adjustable-rate mortgage, your home equity line of credit, your variable-rate credit cards—are going to be more expensive.

That's going to be extremely difficult to deal with . . . unless you start to wipe out the most expensive of those debts: your credit card bills.

Why You Have to Tackle the Credit Card Bills First

The amount you can accumulate by investing that $10 a day is so tempting that you'll want to skip the first two steps—the credit card repayment, the emergency savings cushion—and jump right in. (And if you can free up $20 a day, well, then, be my guest.) But there's a good reason for tackling those credit card bills first: at 14, 15, or 16 percent and higher, they're costing you more than you can earn by socking the money away. At 24, 25, or 29 percent, they're costing you double or triple what you can earn. Not only that: they're doing damage to your confidence. They're sabotaging your ability to be content, not only with your money, but with your life. They have to go.

I can make you this promise: As soon as you start plowing through those credit card bills, as soon as you see the numbers heading down rather than up, you're going to feel better. You're not only going to feel optimistic about your financial future, you're going to actually feel, for the first time in a very long time, as if you really have one.

step 1

Assess the Problem

How Did You Get into This Mess?

Before you can solve any problem, you need to understand how you got into trouble in the first place. That's the only way you can clear up your mess—in this case, your debt mess—and dramatically reduce your chances of it happening again.

So, I want you to think back. At some point, you had a clean credit record. For some of you, that may have been way back when a solicitor approached you on your college campus and offered you a big bag of M&Ms or a T-shirt if you'd apply for a credit card. But for most people, it was sometime later than that. Think what was it that sparked the trouble:

Maybe it was when you lost a job. You may be one of the 2.4 million Americans who've lost a job since 1991. Unfortunately, it now takes longer than ever before to find a new one, and even when you do find a new one, it may come at a lower salary, with no health insurance.

Or when you didn't get the raise you were counting on. Perhaps you made a habit of spending ahead of your salary. You figured that although you earned $35,000 a year this year, you'd earn $40,000 the next year and $45,000 the year after that, so you could afford a more expensive mortgage payment or car payment or wardrobe. But the raises never came—not just for you, but for many people. Over the last few years, the average income for moderate-income families has grown almost imperceptibly.

Maybe it was when you bought your house. The house. Of course you always wanted one. It's always been the American dream. In the past half-decade or so, as the stock market has dawdled, the perception has also been that it's a sure-thing investment. Unfortunately, that's just not the case. Today, so many people are buying houses that they can't truly afford that the foreclosure rate is higher than it's ever been.

Or when you rented your apartment. Between 1993 and 2000, rents rose at twice the rate of inflation. They rose well ahead of the raise you were likely to receive on the job. As your rent ate up a bigger share of your budget each month, maybe you started leaning on your credit cards.

Or when you got divorced. After a divorce, the temptation to try to maintain your standard of living—often by continuing to live in the house you shared with a spouse—is great. Unfortunately, unless you're wealthy, it's also next to impossible.

Maybe it was when you had a health scare. Forty million Americans have no health insurance. Perhaps you're in that boat, but even if you're not, the rising cost of health care can easily throw you deep into debt. Health care premiums have skyrocketed in the last decade. Simultaneously, the percentage of people who had employers paying for that health care fell out of the sky.

Maybe you could afford most of these things, but nothing else. Americans have started using their credit cards to fill the gap between how much they earn and how much they need to live. They may be able to pay their rent, their utilities and their car payments, but groceries, doctors' visits and other necessities are going on the credit card.

Maybe you had no savings to bail you out of a jam. Perhaps the transmission died, or the roof sprung a leak, or you had some other problem that absolutely, positively had to be taken care of but you had no savings to pay for it. So you had to charge it and figure you'd pay it back later, but the cost of living got in the way.

Maybe you have a spending problem. There are people who are addicted to shopping, and then there are people who just spend more than they make. More and more people every year fall into the latter category. According to a Roper survey, fewer Americans in 2004 than in the two previous years said they planned to cut back when it comes to buying luxuries, high-tech items, eating out in restaurants or buying items for their homes. Unfortunately, if you're spending more than you make, you're digging deeper and deeper into debt.

Maybe It Was a Combination of Things

In January 2004, I announced on the Today show that later in the year, I would be doing a series on getting out of debt. We would follow—and help—two families in their quest to become debt-free. Then I asked for volunteers. I got thousands of e-mails within 24 hours (if I didn't know I was on the right track already, I knew it then).

What these e-mails showed, time after time after time, was that you are often able to handle a single one of these problems, but, as Murphy's Law would have it, the problems often hit you simultaneously—or one right after the other. You could handle the fact that you had a spending problem as long as you had a high five-figure salary. But then you lost your job. You could handle the fact that you could just barely afford your mortgage payments, until you had a health scare that saddled you with a pile of bills. You thought you could handle the second lease on the second car, until you didn't get that raise you were counting on.

Elizabeth in Washington wrote: “My financial despair is due in part to a devastating personal loss, which resulted in loss of employment. The loss of my job and the resultant stress of the financial devastation it created further impacted my personal loss. I have been suffering from depression and doing some self-medicating with occasional 'retail therapy.' This behavior worsens my situation and leaves me feeling further overwhelmed by my financial situation. I don't know how to 'get a grip'!”

And from Gloria in Pennsylvania: “Two years ago, my husband was forced to retire after 33 years of employment at a local company. When the 'retirement' occurred, we were in the midst of building an addition [to our home], starting a new business and paying for my daughter's wedding. We accumulated $17,000 in credit card debt. Our income, since the retirement, is reduced by almost two-thirds. Both my husband and I work long hours in a seemingly fruitless attempt to pay down our debt; however, the credit card balances remain almost stationary because of the high interest rates, finance fees and late fees. We are drowning.”

The sort of worry and anxiety that Elizabeth and Gloria expressed ran through just about every one of the e-mails I received. It also showed up in the results of a RoperASW study conducted at the end of 2003:
• More than 70 percent of people are worried about the rising cost of health care.
• More than 60 percent are worried about having enough money to live “right.”
• More than 60 percent are worried about having enough money to pay the bills.
• More than 50 percent are worried about interest rates rising.

Worrying, unfortunately, doesn't do any good, nor does an underlying belief that credit cards are bad or evil. Research by Sue Eccles, a professor at Lancaster University Management School in Great Britain, has shown that most of us believe we use credit too often. Another study by Thomas Durkin, an economist with the Federal Reserve of New York, showed that the more people use their credit cards, the more they feel credit is “bad.”

Credit, it turns out, is like a double bacon-cheeseburger (with the bun): we know perfectly well that it's bad for us, and yet we eat it anyway.

So, How Bad Is It?

It's time to answer the question, How much debt do you have? Many people really don't know, and even if they do, sometimes their spouses don't. (I got e-mails from people who wanted to be “outed” on the Today show because they couldn't tell their spouses that they were hiding a massive credit card bill.)

To get on the road to repayment, you need to know how much debt you're carrying and at what interest rates. And if you're part of a couple, you both need to know.

You can use the work sheet on pages 9—10 to get you going or you can do the work on a computer or on another piece of paper, but it's time to take stock.

There are two basic types of debts. Secured debt is debt that has an asset—also called collateral—backing it up. Your mortgage is a secured debt that uses your house as collateral. If you miss enough mortgage payments, the bank will foreclose and take your house. Your car loan is, similarly, a secured debt. If you stop writing checks to GM Capital (or whomever), you can count on a visit from the repo man. Likewise, if you've purchased furniture or appliances on a payment plan, this is a secured loan. Unsecured debts, on the other hand, are those not backed with collateral. Because there are no assets behind these loans, the bank or lender takes a bigger risk in lending you the money. Nothing can be easily taken from you to force you to pay. That's why the interest rates on unsecured loans are higher. Credit card debts are, as you probably figured, unsecured loans.

When you've completed the work sheet your tendency is going to be to worry. Don't. I know your total looks big. I'm going to teach you how to break it down into manageable pieces so that you can tackle it on $10 a day.

Tales of Life and Debt:
“We Didn't Know How Bad It Was”
Until very recently, Tina and Brian, parents of two living in Everett, Washington, could tell you that they were in debt (the bills each month were nonstop and overwhelming) and they could tell you why they were in debt (Brian lost his job as a help-desk analyst nine months earlier, cutting their family income in half). What they couldn't tell you—because they didn't know themselves—was how bad the problem was.

“If I say I didn't want to know, does that make sense?” Tina asked. “I'm kind of scared to figure out where we are. Not knowing somehow makes you feel better.” Unfortunately, not knowing how much you owe, to whom and at what interest rate allows you to spend as if the problem doesn't exist, as Tina and Brian did the previous holiday season. It leaves you wondering if you're making the right decisions about who to pay first. In other words, it gives you room to hang yourself.

There are many, many people in Brian and Tina's situation. According to research conducted in late 2002 by RoperASW, although 88 percent of Americans have enough money to make their rent or mortgage payments every month and nearly as many have enough money to buy the things they need, only 44 percent can afford to pay off their credit cards each month, and only 32 percent say they'd have enough saved to weather a financial hardship. If you're one of the people who are leaning a little too hard on the plastic in their wallets, step one in getting out of debt is understanding why you're in debt and how bad the problem is.

It comes down to basic psychology: if you don't fix the underlying problem, conquering the symptoms will do you no good in the long run. You'll repeat the destructive behavior and end up in the same debt hole all over again. You need to understand why it happened in the first place. The second thing you need to understand is how bad the problem is. With my prodding, Tina spent a weekend figuring out how much was coming in each month, how much was going out, and where it was going. “It took hours,” she said. “I cried.”

Tina figured that, with Brian's unemployment checks, they had a net income each month of $4,634. Their average spending for the previous couple of months—which included making the minimum payments on five credit cards, as well as paying the mortgage, a consolidation loan, and home equity line of credit—had been $5,875. “It's even worse than I thought it was,” Tina said.

But going through the numbers also showed her the possibilities. Her credit cards were at fairly high interest rates; she vowed to try to reduce those. She also had been spending more than she probably had to for auto and homeowners' insurance, as well as for long- distance phone service. She decided she could easily swap from premium cable to cheaper basic, and she'd never thought of contacting the pricey preschool her daughter attended to ask for financial aid.

The family's goal for the next few months was to trim their expenses to the point where they could at least tread water. Brian enrolled in a training program for medical transcriptionists. He'll graduate and—they believe—will be back in the workforce within six months. By paring their spending back, they can put themselves in position to make rapid progress on their debt when Brian begins working again. And while daunting, that's a prospect that feels good. “I should have done this years ago,” Tina said.

Table of Contents


the promise ix Introduction: Getting Ahead and Staying Ahead xv step 1
Assess the Problem 1
step 2
Break Your Challenge into Manageable Steps 15
step 3
Know and Manage Your Credit Score 21
step 4
Track Your Spending 43
step 5
Find the Money 61
step 6
Find the Money: Consolidating Your Debts 91
step 7
Find the Money: Spending Less 107
step 8
Find the Money: Making Hard Choices, Selling Assets, Earning More 141
step 9
Pay It Down—Intelligently 159
step 10
How to Deal When Things Go Wrong 171
step 11
Staying Ahead of the Game 189
Afterword: Congratulations 211
Acknowledgments 213
Index 215

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